Long summery evenings are a most wonderful thing. It was still light as we bounded along the Orongorongo Valley track on Friday evening; dark only settling down upon us as we reached the river. Using a waypoint that Bram had marked on his gps we successfully navigated in the, suddenly rather dark darkness, to the promised, “flat grassy campsite with nikau forest”.
It was a novelty not to have to cook upon reaching camp, and after we had the tent and fly erected, there was a moment where we stood around saying, “yeah, well, I guess straight to bed then”. The next question was who was sleeping where, or more to the point, who was getting the tent and who the fly. All professed toughness and a willingness to sleep under the fly, but really…In the end we agreed the women would have the tent, but that the second night it would be the men’s turn. Though you’ll see how this played out later.
We all woke as soon as it was light and crawled out to greet the day. The weather was fine, though the sun had not yet touched our little campsite. After breakfast we got into our wet boots and continued on up the river valley. Stepping into the sunshine was glorious, and with barely a cloud visible anywhere, all was looking good for our ascent of Mt Matthews.
Before turning up the Matthews River, we took a small detour to look at Baine-iti Hut – the oldest hut in the valley. A little wood smoke lingering above the trees was the only clue there may be a hut nearby. We ducked under some ferns, and there it was. Made of battered corrugated iron, but freshly painted forest green it was like something shaped by hand out of plasticine; not a straight line anywhere. I liked it. A father with primary school-aged son were packing up and getting ready to head down the river where they were meeting some friends. The fire was now out but the hut smelt smoky and deliciously lived in.
Pushing back through the ferns, we stepped out into the sunshine again and started to make our way up the Mathews Valley. First over the stones, and then into the bush. Gently up at first, and then progressively steeper, till it was a scramble with the hands as much as the feet. I love tracks like this. You know you really are climbing. And I enjoy the texture of bark against the palm.
We reached the turnoff to the saddle and called a halt. Packs were deposited among the roots of an obliging tree, and we continued up unencumbered. It was the most buoyant feeling to be without a pack, and I almost flew the rest of the way. As we got higher the bush was damp and dripping; goblin forest trees draped about with moss. Then at the top we burst back into sunshine. A small rocky outcrop gave a bit of a clearing, and someone had considerately chopped back the trees to give trampers a view worth their walk. It was wonderfully clear – a rare thing on Mount Matthews so I am told. We all gazed out to the coast. Looking down on farmland reminded us we were only a step from civilisation. While getting to the top is always nice, Bram posited that the view from the saddle, looking down into the Catchpool Valley on one side, and out to the coast on the other, was the better view. Some of us may have been inclined to agree.
Back at the turnoff, we reshouldered our swags, and I could have sworn mine was a couple kgs heavier than when I had left it. But whatever its weight, it was not enough to stop me getting blown about as we came along the exposed grassy saddle. After sitting down for a moment or two here and there, in places I hadn’t exactly intended upon, we dropped down over the other side and into the bush, and the wind was banished to the branches above our heads.
For the next little while we scrambled down a most delightful little stream gully. But before long, lots of tributaries began to join it and our little stream was soon becoming much larger. In no time at all, the river valley opened out. Instead of route finding through trees and river and steep muddy banks, we were striding along wide open shingle, and making only the occasional crossing of the river as it swung from one side to another. From the top of the saddle the sea had looked tantalisingly close, and now just before every bend, we thought, perhaps this next corner…We stopped for a snack, and according to Bram’s gps, we had come but half-way! However, the second half proved much quicker, though increasingly windy. And then there it was: the sea, the sea: deep roaring blue flecked with foam.
We turned our faces to the wind and pounded along the four-wheel drive track the last few kms to Corner Creek Campground. It looked like a popular place. There is something strange about walking all day only to arrive somewhere others have driven to. A couple of campsites along someone called Anna was having a birthday, and just across from us some guys ripped the wingmirror off their vehicle by reversing too close to a tree. They had had a few beers, and we had little sympathy.
After we’d got the tent and fly up and drying in the sun and wind, we split into teams for dinner prep and firewood gathering. After a delicious meal of Nutty Rice, courtesy of chefs Bram, Barbara and Inky, we were all excited to get the little campfire going. There is something so nice about sitting round a fire…In this case however, the dream did not match the reality as it was still very windy, and no matter where you sat, you were sure to be treated to a face full of smoke and hot sparks at least once every minute or so. While looking down blinking smoke from our eyes, we noticed a little caterpillar climbing one of the stones around the fire pit. Bram nudged it down again with a stick. After a minute or two however, it resumed its upwards trajectory. When almost at the top, a little puff of hot smoky air would persuade it to turn to the side and down. But then undeterred it would start to climb up again. After repeating this performance a few more times, it gained the top of the stone and looked over. Just at that moment, the wind changed and the caterpillar was sucked into the flames and was gone. “I feel that was a conscious choice”, Sam said, and we all had to agree.
After the conclusion of that little episode we decided it was time to turn in. It was starting to get dark, and the first spots of rain were in the air. This evening it was the men’s turn with the tent, and the women had the fly. Given the wind and impending rain, this seemed like the worst deal, but we were all too proud to beg for the tent. After nine hours of, not anything one could really call sleep, we packed up with only a few spots of rain blowing about, and decamped to the sheltered picnic table to prepare and eat breakfast.
Just as we were ready, the rain seemed to come down extra hard. We stood about waiting for it to ease just a little, then pushed out into the wind. The sea and sky were rough and most dramatic. The rain was pinging fiercely against the side of my jacket hood. Wait a minute, pinging? Yes, that was small bits of hail. It was about this time I was wishing I hadn’t adhered quite so closely to the ‘be bold, start cold’ approach. Even walking briskly as we were, the idea of getting too hot and having to stop to take off a layer, was as remote as ice on the sun. I began to keep an eye out for possible slightly sheltered places to stop and put on my fleece and perhaps my thermal jacket too, but there was really nowhere. And the idea of stopping anyway and getting a bit wet while I relayered was not an appealing one. Surely there would be somewhere soon. We pounded on. Then finally – “There,” said Bram, “where those sheep are”. He pointed to a huddle of sheep on the side of the hill sheltering by some low-lying scrubby manuka. We hurried over. They moved aside for us and paused just a little way off giving us resentful looks. The sheep did indeed know the best place. In the lee of the hill and under the scrub the wind was no more than a breath, and the rain reduced to the odd drip.
We ventured out again. After a short while, the rain eased to a gentle swirling mist of the kind that might be called atmospheric, as opposed to bloody freezing. The ocean was wild, the sky steely grey. It was atmospheric. And not long after that the sun began to venture out and the whole scene was positively bucolic. We passed horses standing under karaka trees. They were a beautiful chestnut, and one had a white blaze down its nose. It was just the kind of horse a reader of Pony Club books might dream of. [disclaimer: I’ve never read a Pony Club book, but was not completely immune to this genre as a child and for a short while indulged in romantic fantasies of horse ownership]. We also saw some juvenile goats with shaggy mottled black, brown and white coats who bounded away up the hill at our approach. Lambs of course, were in evidence, and cows gave us steady considered looks. And soon after that we were walking in blazing sunshine and I was digging for my sunglasses (though not yet taking off my jacket. The wind was still cold).
We got to the carpark with an hour to spare and settled down to wait for Garth who was to pick us up. Boots were removed, and the sopping wet tent laid out to dry in the sun. After lunch, and with our immediate needs now meet, thoughts began to dwell on the unusual complete emptiness of the carpark. Bram couldn’t get a signal on his phone to call Garth so he decided to wander down the road in search of better reception. He returned with the news that the road was closed due to there being a car race on (!?#). We packed up the still wet tent, shouldered our packs again and with our jandals on and boots dangling from one hand, went to investigate.
The man at the end of the road with the walkie talkie said they were just taking a 30-minute lunch break, and that we could start walking if we liked, but that we would have to get off the road when they started again. The course was 2km. We would have to trot. We had only gone a few hundred meters however, when Sir Garth, knight in shining car, pulled up. Race officials at the other end had, owing to the lunch break, allowed him through. We all piled in, sitting on each other’s knees and with packs that wouldn’t fit in the boot squeezed in on top. Driving out we passed a long que of cars waiting to start the track – old cars, new cars, sporty cars and blue cars, and cars with stripes. Apparently, this whole race thing was quite the event.
After picking up Bram’s car at Catchpool, we reconvened at the golf club café for a well-earned hot beverage and chips. It was so hot and sunny the rain of the morning seemed like some other day that had happened to some other people. It really was a lovely finish to a trip of both wild and wonderful weather.
Thanks to everyone for a great time and to Garth for being our road end transport.